Photo by Trevor Groves

Preview of #2 Clemson vs Syracuse

#2 Clemson has won 25 of its last 26 games and is looking to improve to 9-0 (6-0 ACC) with a win over Syracuse in Death Valley on Saturday.

Welcome to the Military Appreciation edition of What We Are Hearing!

What a classic in Tallahassee! I confess I didn’t expect the Noles to put up the fight that they did. Early on, it looked like the Tigers would run away with it. They scored on their first two possessions and were up 14-0 with the ball, but an interception by Watson led to a touchdown and gave them life the rest of the way. My 38-20 prediction was only a point off on the offensive end, but 3 bad defensive busts led to FSU touchdowns, making it a lot closer than it should have been. Unlike last season, the Tigers had done an outstanding avoiding big plays, but they allowed several in Tallahassee. For me, the story of the game was Florida native Jordan Leggett. He had a huge play in the opening drive to set up the first touchdown and 3 big catches in the final drive, including an acrobatic into the pilon for the game-winning touchdown. He finished with 122 yards—his second career game with over 100 reception yards, just the fifth time in Clemson history a tight end has accomplished the feat. Interestingly enough, Leggett’s other 100-yard game came in last year’s game against his home state Seminoles. Amazingly, not even Dwayne Allen went over 100. The others were Brandon Ford, Michael Palmer and John McMakin (1970). I don’t want to take the credit, but I have to say that I may have reverse-jinxed Leggett when I asked Dabo to account for Leggett’s slow start with just one catch in the first three games. Since then, Leggett has been the best tight end in the nation without a doubt. He had a big touchdown catch seconds before halftime in Atlanta and scored the game-winning touchdown and 2-point conversion against Louisville. He now has 4 touchdowns in his 19 catches over the last 5 games, averaging 17.7 yards a catch. Only one Power Five TE has more touchdown catches than Leggett. Ole Miss TE Evan Engram has 6 TD’s. Dwayne Allen won the Mackey Award a few years ago, and Leggett was one of three finalists for the award last season. When Leggett decided to forego the NFL last season and return for his senior year, I asked him if he would have left if he had won the award, and he said yes. You can watch our interview with Leggett from Tuesday HERE. For a detailed analysis of the Florida State game, read my grades HERE.

https://youtu.be/x872GpBRv0U

https://youtu.be/egaNKIND88M

With the win in Tallahassee, where they had only won in 2006 since 1989, the Tigers cleared the last major hurdle of the regular season. This has been the season of exorcising road demons. In addition to the Tallahassee drought ending, the Tigers beat Auburn on The Plains for the first time since 1950 and beat Georgia Tech in Atlanta for the first time in 13 years. Incidentally, I have been to Tallahassee twice in my life: in 2006 and last week, so I love Doak Campbell Stadium. The winner of Clemson-FSU has won the ACC for the past 6 straight years and won the Atlantic Division for the past 7 straight years. It has also won a national title or reached the playoff in the last 3 straight years, so hopefully this year will be no different! Who would have thought, though, that the Tigers would have a 3-game lead on the Noles with 3 more ACC games to play?! The Tigers haven’t clinched the division yet, but they are getting close. In fact, if not for a last-second touchdown by Louisville at Virginia last week, the Tigers would be able to clinch the division with a win over Syracuse this week. In my opinion, that last-second Louisville touchdown also saved Lamar Jackson’s Heisman campaign. As spectacular as he has been this season, I don’t think he wins it with 2 losses over an undefeated Deshaun Watson, who beat him head-to-head. That was a bad break for the Tigers for sure, but don’t hand the trophy over to Jackson just yet. He will have to continue to put up huge numbers, which will be harder to do because teams will be zeroing in on him from here on out. They will force him to throw rather than run, and that is not his forte. Also, their remaining schedule is so weak that they will not be in the spotlight and the public consciousness over the last month of the season, unless it’s for another bad performance like the one at UVA last week. Even their game with Houston has greatly diminished in value now that Houston has lost to Navy and SMU. If Watson continues to put improve and put up big numbers, it will be a close race, folks. He will be all over ESPN with games against Syracuse, Pitt and South Carolina coming up, and assuming the Tigers win out, he will have another national stage in the ACC Championship Game while Lamar Jackson is sitting at home. Another thing Watson has on his side is the fact that he is a junior, and the presumption is that he will go pro after this season. Jackson, on the other hand, is just a sophomore. So if it’s close, I believe a lot of voters will give it to Watson, knowing that Jackson will get another chance at it next season. Heck, up until Sam Bradford less than 10 years ago, no one had EVER won the Heisman except for juniors and seniors. Also, there are many who feel Watson should have won the Heisman last year, based on his performance against Alabama and the fact that he was the first player in history to throw for 4,000 yards and rush for 1,000.

As you all know, the College Football Playoff Committee released its first rankings of the season on Tuesday night, and, as we predicted, Clemson claimed the #2 spot above Michigan, which was #2 in both of this week’s polls. The Tigers were, of course, #1 wire-to-wire in the CFP rankings last year, from the first release all the way until the National Championship Game. It’s hard to dispute Alabama being #1 after they have blown out every team they have played, and they are the defending national champs that beat Clemson. Still, the Tigers have a legitimate case for #1 just based on resumes alone. The Tigers have beaten two top-10 teams (one on the road) and another ranked team on the road, while Bama has beaten just one team currently ranked, and that was at home. The Tigers have the #3 strength of schedule (opponents are 32-11) and are the only undefeated team with a strength of schedule in the top-10! Obviously, none of this makes any difference because the Tigers will be in the playoff again provided they win out. But it would be nice if Alabama gets knocked off by LSU or Auburn because that would elevate Clemson to #1 and, more importantly, put the Tigers in Atlanta for the Peach Bowl Semifinal. Food for thought.

Before diving into the Syracuse game, I want to remind everyone to make a habit of visiting the Recruiting Radar Screen forum regularly for updates. We’ll post our list of visiting recruits on Friday evening, and Gary will have a photo gallery as well as some recruit reactions in his weekly Recruiting Radar. As we do every home game, we will also have LIVE video coverage of the Tiger Walk and pre-game warmups, so be sure to tune in if you’re watching the game at home or can’t make it to the Tiger Walk from your tailgate! Finally, Gary will also be posting a special piece on one of the great traditions that occurs at Clemson during Military Appreciation Week.

On to this week’s game….

 

MISCELLANEOUS

Clemson leads the all-time series with Syracuse 3-1 after losing the first meeting in the 1996 Gator Bowl to Donavan McNabb. Since Syracuse joined the ACC in 2013, Clemson has won all 3 meetings by double digits….Saturday is Military Appreciation Day, and the team will wear all purple to honor the military. Fans are encouraged to wear purple in support as well. In 1917, the entire senior class of Clemson Agricultural College volunteered for service in World War I. Two soldiers from Clemson won the Congressional Medal of Honor in that war. In World War II, only Army and Texas A&M produced more Army officers than Clemson, and another Congressional Medal of Honor was bestowed on a Clemson Tiger….Syracuse legend Larry Czonka visited Clemson during the recruiting process in 1963 and had Clemson in his final four schools. He was recruited by Frank Howard, and had he played for Clemson, Czonka would have been a part of 3 ACC Championships from 1965-1967…..Entering the month of November, Clemson is the only school with 3 wins over teams currently in the top 20 of the AP Poll. Michigan is the only other school with wins over 3 schools currently in the top 25….With the win at FSU, the Tigers have won a school record 9 straight true road games. The Tigers will also be adding another tombstone to its collection outside their practice fields, having beaten a top-25 team on the road. Florida State was ranked #12 in the AP last week….Clemson is 8-0 for just the 6th time in school history and the second year in a row….Clemson had the nation’s longest win streak entering the National Championship Game last season and is already back to the fifth-longest, trailing Alabama (20), Washington (11), Western Michigan (10) and Michigan (9)….Clemson has the longest active streak in the top 5 of the AP Poll at 18 weeks…..

 

CLEMSON STATUS

It was another heart-stopper in Tallahassee last week, but I have to tell you that standing on the field with just over 3 minutes to play and down 5 points, I was supremely confident that the Tigers would do exactly what they did—calmly march down the field for a go-ahead touchdown and get a stop on defense. That’s just what they do. The Tigers are remarkably now 16-2 in the last 18 games decided by a touchdown or less. The only losses in that span are an overtime loss at FSU in 2014, which we all know the Tigers should have won by 20, and the 5-point loss to Alabama in the National Championship Game—another game in which the Tigers outplayed their opponent and should have won. That is staggering to think about. This program is becoming like the New York Yankees or Duke Basketball in terms of mystique. Even non-Clemson fans are beginning to label the Tigers as the team that just finds ways to win. It’s an incredible turnaround from just 6 years ago, when the Tigers lost 5 games by less than a touchdown in 2010. I recall another year—I think it was 2005—in which the Tigers lost 4 games by a total of 5 points in regulation! They lost to a top-10 Miami team and a Matt Ryan-led BC team both in overtime that year, and had they won just one of those games, they would have been in the ACC Championship instead of FSU, the team the Tigers beat by 21. The close wins are a major reason Clemson surpassed Florida State on Saturday for the second-most wins since 2011. Alabama has the most at 70, Clemson has 64 and FSU has 63. I think it’s gotten to the point when Clemson’s opponents are beginning to recognize the reputation as well, and if it’s a close game in the final minutes, I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s in the back of their minds that they’re playing a team that doesn’t lose close games. Or it could just be the pressure that any team feels when it’s trying to knock off a top-ranked national power. Clemson was on the opposite end of that relationship for years in trying to beat a top-10 Florida State. Well, the shoe was on the other foot this time, as the Tigers were the favorite in Tallahassee—something that is rarely the case. And you could sense that quiet confidence and poise from the players both on the field and on the sideline on Saturday night. Once the game was over, however, the mood of the team was as euphoric as I have seen it. There was a giddiness during the Alma Mater near the Clemson section that I have rarely seen. From Dabo and Deshaun high-fiving the fans to Florida native Artavis Scott taking “selfies” with his phone camera. I’ll have a photo gallery posted tonight, and you will get an idea what I mean. Usually, during the singing of the Alma Mater, I am one of the only ones recording video, and there are a few others taking photos. We usually stand about 15 or 20 feet back of the players. This time, however, I had ESPN reporters and people I have never seen on top of me trying to record on their phones—so much so that I was right in the players’ faces. It was a crazy scene!

Now that the euphoria has worn off, it was back to business this week for the staff and players. It’s the paradigm that has made Clemson the second-most consistent program in America. They have a protocol from which they don’t deviate, and they prepare for each and every opponent the exact same way. That being said, they certainly have plenty to work on and areas in which to improve. Turnovers were prevalent in close home games with Louisville and NC State—particularly fumbles. Watson had two interceptions at FSU, but the Tigers did not put the ball on the ground once, so that is encouraging. The Tigers are now -1 in turnover margin for the season, which is extraordinarily rare for an 8-0 team. This is not a new phenomenon either. The Tigers were -2 in 8 games that they won last year. I’m not sure that has ever happened in the history of college football. While it’s great to have the ability to win in spite of turnovers, we’d all prefer to have few or zero turnovers and blow teams out, so let’s hope the worst is behind us in that department. The defense also needs to shore up the perimeter and do a better job setting the edge against the run. They thrice failed to do that against Florida State, and it cost them big. Fortunately, that is something that is easily correctable. The secondary needs to clean up its technique as well. There’s a fine line between being physical in press man coverage and committing pass interference, and the Tigers’ crossed that line too many times in Tallahassee. A couple of the calls were bad, but there were still too many PI flags. Finally, I’d like to see Ray-Ray return to the form we saw early in the season. He was electric in the return game over the first few games, but since a case of “dropitis” has befallen him, he seems to have completely lost his confidence. Let’s hope he can find it again in these last few ACC games.

Welcome back, Austin Bryant! He played sparingly against NC State but really made his return felt with a vengeance against FSU, leading the team with 2 sacks! Having him back in the fold makes one of the best defensive lines in the nation that much stronger and deeper. The Tigers also have LB Jalen Williams back from his hamstring injury, but he appeared to still be a step or two slow on Saturday night. A player told me that the large brace he has had to wear is really bothering him, and he can’t wait to be able to take it off. Otherwise, the Tigers are in great shape from an injury standpoint. Knock on wood! Jadar Johnson strained his calf muscle at FSU and had to leave the game, but he is set to play on Saturday. That is a relief because the Tigers clearly missed him after he left the game. He leads the team with 4 interceptions, and the one he had on Saturday night was a fantastic play. Dabo called him the MVP of the defense for the first half of the season, and it’s hard to argue that statement. He’s been integral in the Tigers’ improvement in the secondary when everyone in the world thought it would be a major weakness after losing 3 underclassman starters. The Tigers are now #16 in pass defense, allowing 181.1 yards per game, thanks to the FSU game. Before that they were #7 and allowing just 166 yards per game. Speaking of injuries and the secondary, Adrian Baker will not make his highly anticipated return this week. He is practicing every day with the scout team, but Dabo said his confidence just isn’t quite there yet. Fortunately, the secondary has been great without him, but it will help to have him back for the stretch run.

Jake Fruhmorgen hurt his shoulder at FSU, but he is probable for Saturday, as is Ray-Ray McCloud, who tweaked his ankle. Freshman Sean Pollard did a great job spelling Fruhmorgen at right tackle. I asked Dabo how tight the battle was for the starting spot at that position, and he said Fruh still has a firm grasp on it but was quick to praise Pollard.

 

SYRACUSE SYNOPSIS

The Orange are obviously under new management, with Head Coach Dino Babers taking over this season, and he has brought a new vitality and enthusiasm to this program. They are coming off two consecutive ACC wins, including a huge 31-17 win over Virginia Tech, which leads the Coastal Division. The other was a 28-20 win over BC. Perhaps the VT win was an anomaly because they also lost 62-28 to Louisville, 45-20 to USF, 50-33 to Notre Dame and 28-9 to Wake Forest. All of those losses came prior to beating VT, so perhaps they have figured some things out under the new regime. Time will tell as far as that goes, but the older players won’t be lacking in confidence, having taken the Tigers to the limit in Death Valley back in 2014 and putting up a good fight last year in the Carrier Dome. That being said, Dino has pulled out all the stops this week to pull the old reverse-jinx and reverse psychology on his team, stating unequivocally and repeatedly how outmatched his team is. He even said “Don’t hold your breath,” and equated the matchup to David versus Goliath (see below). You can listen to or read his ACC teleconference statements HERE and read his press conference comments regarding Clemson HERE.

https://youtu.be/LBqVz2E8RzI

Mike McAllister, publisher of Scout’s Syracuse site, Cuse Nation, has provided us with some inside insight on the Orange. Here is his breakdown:

On offense, they love to run tempo. They will go as fast as possible to prevent defenses from substituting. Key players include Eric Dungey, Amba Etta-Tawo, Ervin Philips and Steve Ishmael. Dungey is a solid quarterback who has excelled in Dino Babers' system. He is accurate, mobile and has enough arm strength to go down the field.

Etta-Tawo has been one of the best receivers in the nation this season. He has everything. Speed, size and playmaking ability. He is the clear number one target. Erv Philips is a slot receiver who sees a lot of targets, especially on screens and comeback routes. He is solid after the catch and has been very productive this season. Ishmael is a prototypical possession receiver. He is a fantastic route runner and has excellent hands. But he is not as dangerous in the open field as Etta-Tawo or Philips. 

The weakness of the offense has been the rushing attack. It has been below average all season. 

The offensive line is missing two starters from the season opener. Center Jason Emerich and right guard Omari Palmer. Both are experienced seniors. They are replaced by Colin Byrne (C) and Evan Adams (RG). Both are young and inconsistent right now. 

Defensively, they run a Tampa-2 system that relies on pressure from the front four. They mix up their coverages between man and zone, and use the linebackers in coverage quite a bit. They do not like to bring a ton of blitzes. 

Players to watch include defensive lineman Chris Slayton, linebackers Zaire Franklin and Parris Bennett, and safety Daivon Ellison. Slayton is a versatile defensive lineman who plays tackle and end. He will start inside. He is extremely athletic and very quick. 

Franklin is the leader of the defense as the middle linebacker. He is solid in coverage, but is best as a downhill linebacker who can read and react. Bennett is a very strong tackler and has been making plays in the last few games. 

Ellison is an undersized safety at about 5-8, but might be the best tackler on the team. He plays bigger than he is, isn't afraid to mix it up and packs a powerful punch when he arrives. 

Syracuse is missing two key contributors in the secondary. Antwan Cordy (S) and Juwan Dowels (CB) are out for the season. Both were starters at one point before their injury. Cordell Hudson, another starting CB, was left off of the injury report this week. That likely means he will return for the first time in two or three games. 

Obviously, the Tigers will have to lock down WR Etta-Tawo, who is having a monster season. He is 3rd in the nation with 134 reception yards per game and 6th in receptions per game. He has 1,074 yards already and 7 touchdowns on the season.

The Cuse is #112 in rushing offense (121.6 yards/game), so that bodes well for the Tigers because stopping the run has been their biggest weakness so far. RB Dontae Strickland is their leading rusher with 444 yards on the season, but he is second to QB Eric Dungey in rush attempts. Strickland has just 2 touchdowns on the season and averages 3.9 yards per carry.

Without question, the strength of the Syracuse offense lies in its passing game. They are ranked #5 in passing offense, averaging 357.1 yards per game. That will be the matchup of the day—the Syracuse passing game versus the Clemson pass defense, which, as I alluded to earlier, is one of the best in the nation but struggled a bit last week at FSU. Venables said that this is the fastest tempo offense the Tigers will have seen, so communication and attention to detail will be imperative. The return of Austin Bryant should help in terms of stamina on the D-Line.

Dungey is a sophomore quarterback who is growing in confidence by the week. He was 32-38 for 434 yards, 3 touchdowns and one interception in the win against BC last week. He also ran for 54 yards. He runs quite a bit in their run-pass option offense but has only averaged 2.4 yards per carry. He does have 6 rushing touchdowns on the season. On the season, Dungey has completed 64.7% of his passes for 2,631 yards, 15 touchdowns and 6 interceptions. Dungey seems to be a savvy QB with a lot of poise, but he hasn’t been in an intimidating environment like Death Valley all season. He started at Florida State as a freshman last year and lost 45-21. He played at Louisville the following week and lost 41-17. Obviously, that was a different team, but it will be interesting to see how he handles the pressure of facing a Brent Venables top-10 defense in the pressure cooker of Death Valley.

Syracuse is #81 in scoring offense (26.6 points/game) and #24 in total offense (486.8 yards/game).

Defensively, the Orange are tied with FSU for #90 in pass defense (251.5 yards/game), #91 in rush defense (199.3 yards/game), #105 in total defense (450.8 yards/game) and #94 in scoring defense (31.6 points/game).

 

PREDICTION

I’ll make this short and sweet. I was one point off my prediction for the BC game, prognosticating a 55-10 Clemson win. I was very close on the defensive side for the NC State game, but the numerous turnovers by the offense skewed my prediction on that side. Conversely, I was only one point off on the offensive side for the FSU game, but the uncommon big plays given up by the defense resulted in an aberrant point total on the defensive side. I am hoping and expecting the Tigers put it together on Saturday in front of the home crowd, keeping both the turnovers and the big plays allowed to a minimum. Ironically, the Tigers have played most of their worst football at home, outside of the SC State game. They beat a great team in Louisville but had 5 turnovers and should have won by much more. They turned it over 4 times (5 counting a turnover on downs at the goal line) against NC State, including the only pick-six of Watson’s life. I don’t know if it’s a lack of focus because they feel unbeatable at home—they do have the longest home win streak in the nation at 20 games—but they have simply been sloppy in Death Valley this season. However, I think this will be the week they put that behind them. Syracuse is outmanned, and we will see a complete game on both sides of the ball with limited mistakes. The Tigers win their 21st consecutive home game, 15th consecutive ACC game and 26th consecutive non-National Championship game. The Tigers are currently 27-point favorites in this one, but I don’t see it even being that close.

The Prowl toward a 16th ACC Title in '16, a repeat appearance in the College Football Playoff and a second National Championship continues……

 

 

CLEMSON  52    Syracuse  17

 


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